For Parsons student Terrence Zhou, the “haute couture action dolls” that Viktor & Rolf showed on the runway in Paris during the couture shows looked a little too familiar.
In a phone interview Friday, the Chinese-born student said he applied for an internship with Viktor & Rolf in late May, and provided a mini portfolio as part of the process. Zhou sent WWD the e-mail correspondence he had with Dominique van Barneveld at Viktor & Rolf. His application was eventually rejected since the company requires that interns have an EU passport, according to one of van Barneveld’s e-mails. “Even if you would have a Visum we can’t accept you. Those are the rules of the government and unfortunately we can’t change those,” he wrote. “Thank you once again for your interest in our company and good luck with finding an internship.”
Zhou said Friday, “After they rejected me, I thought that was the end until I saw their collection two days ago, which was very similar to my portfolio.”
But a U.S. spokeswoman for Viktor & Rolf dismissed Zhou’s claim on Monday. “For all seasons, all the Viktor & Rolf development and designs are entirely done by the Viktor & Rolf [designers] and the Maison,” she said.
Dolls have been a recurrent theme for the Amsterdam-based designers, famed for their 1999 Russian dolls collection, and a touring exhibition featuring 31 dolls that made a Toronto stop in 2013.
Van Barneveld did not respond to requests for comment.
Not asked to sign any sort of consent form, Zhou said it is “extremely hard” for fashion students to get internships anywhere so portfolios are routinely dropped off or forwarded. They do that half expecting not to be notified in any way, since students often approach companies they like, not necessarily ones that have advertised internships, Zhou said. The junior design student submitted images from the “Plastic Surgery” collaboration he had done last year with fashion illustrator Lizzi Shin, which challenged Western beauty standards. Zhou said he sent Viktor & Rolf a mini portfolio to just give the company a taste of what he was doing.
“I thought that would protect my rights as a designer,” he said. “A friend direct-messaged me their Instagram post and said it reminded him of my design. That friend didn’t know I had applied for an internship. Then it suddenly hit me, ‘Oh wow, this is Viktor & Rolf and it looks extremely like my designs.’”
His first course of action was to consult with some of his professors at Central Saint Martins, where he had attended summer classes in the past and will spend the upcoming fall semester as an exchange student. “They said, ‘It’s the fashion industry — just take it because that’s the way it is.’ They are not encouraging me to find lawyers or anything.”
For the time being, he is taking the cautious route, concerned about having anything backfire that could “maybe endanger my future career development. However, I still need to speak up because this is not a single case. I have a lot of friends at CSM who have had big companies copy their designs and made a lot of money without giving them any credit. Some companies paid them to shut them up and some companies declined to comment.”
“This is not a single case that happened one day. I decided to speak up because if we don’t they will always have power and will exploit young talents. This is extremely harmful and detrimental to new creativity and talent,” Zhou said.
Having nearly completed a degree in mathematics at Wabash College in Indiana, before relocating to New York to switch tracks for fashion design, Zhou has no intention of giving up now. “I just think wherever their inspiration comes from they should give the credit,” he said. “I want to protect our rights. I think it’s time for a change.”
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